Review: ‘Eighteen’

The agonies and occasional ecstasies of high school infatuation are vividly recalled this impressive debut feature.

The agonies and occasional ecstasies of high school infatuation are vividly recalled in “Eighteen,” the impressive debut feature of South Korean cinematographer-turned-director Jang Kun-jae. Exceptionally well-acted by Seo Jun-yeong and Lee Min-ji as young Seoul lovers separated by disapproving parents, the DV-shot pic won the Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Cinema at the Vancouver fest and deserves to travel far on the basis of Jang’s culturally specific yet widely accessible approach to near-universal themes.

Kim Tae-hoon (Seo) is a stubborn, volatile young man who delivers Chinese food on a motor scooter. His girlfriend, Park Mi-jeong (Lee), works hard in school and generally obeys her strict parents, but agrees to go away for the weekend with Tae-hoon during winter break.

The initial consequences of this impulsive decision are revealed in the film’s most indelible scene, as Mi-jeong’s parents, having gotten wind of the kids’ escapade, invite Tae-hoon and his folks to their home to discuss matters. In a sequence both hilarious and horrifying, Mi-jeong’s dad forces each lover to fill out an extensive questionnaire regarding his or her recent activities so the father can examine the two reports and check for discrepancies. Then Dad suddenly goes berserk, forbidding the young lovers from seeing each other again.

The film’s tone darkens significantly from here, as depressed Tae-hoon tries to borrow money at a local arcade and is beaten by young toughs, and later hits a pedestrian with his scooter. All the while, he refuses to accept the new terms of the relationship, tapping on Mi-jeong’s bedroom window at night and later contriving to stalk her during her sessions with a tutor. Such is Tae-hoon’s off-putting behavior — and the girl’s stated desire not to see him anymore — that the audience can’t help hoping against hope for the young man’s obsession to fade.

Jang’s many long takes contribute greatly to a languorous, melancholy mood that some viewers will recognize from their own teenager-in-love histories. Digital-video shooting is plenty rough around the edges, which suits the heartsick vibe as well. Alas, a couple of odd surreal touches near the end of the film obscure, more than enhance, Jang’s generally enthralling narrative. Other tech credits are appropriately raw.

Eighteen

South Korea

Production

A WooSan Film presentation. (International sales, M-Line Distribution, Beverly Hills/Seoul.) Produced by Jang Kun-jae, Kim Woo-ri. Directed, written by Jang Kun-jae.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Lee Hyung-bin; editor, Lee Yeong-jung; music, Kim Tae-seong. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival (Dragons & Tigers), Oct. 10, 2009. (Also in London Film Festival.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Seo Jun-yeong, Lee Min-ji, Kwon Hyeok-pung, Han Na, Choi Hyo-sang, Choi Hyeon-sook.
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